Let's Talk About Sex: Macao's religiously affiliated schools design their own curriculums

Co-written by Rafelle Allego.

At Chan Sui Ki Perpetual Help College (PHC), a Catholic school in Macao, 17-year-old Enya* has learned the “proper way” to interact with the opposite sex: According to her teachers, dating is acceptable, but sex should be avoided until marriage.

“Our Catholic teachers have told us that sex is a gift from God so we shouldn’t do it casually,” says Enya, noting that graphic descriptions of abortions have accompanied some abstinence lessons.

“They told us how doctors insert forceps into the uterus, crush the fetus, then use a plastic tube to pull it out,” she recalls of a Form 5 class conducted by social workers from Macao Catholic Family Advisory Council. “When they explained the procedure, I was frightened and found it really cruel.”

According to PHC Principal Sister Margaret Cheung, the school’s sexuality education curriculum covers topics like abortion, sex, consent, sexually transmitted diseases and contraception but does not address gender diversity or homosexuality. They also do not condone pre-marital sex.

“We insist that sexual activities should be based on true love and commitment and [teenagers] should not reject the possibility of pregnancy,” Cheung explains. “If the students understand these concepts then they will know how to be good men or women by playing their gender roles appropriately throughout the different stages of their lives.”

PHC is just one example of how religiously affiliated schools in Macao – which comprise roughly half of the city’s 77 schools – approach sexuality education. These schools address many important topics, but often saturate lessons with religious beliefs and traditional gender conventions.

“I would say that, in Catholic schools, [sex education] is taught indirectly,” says Father Rodrigo*, a former teacher who retired three years ago from a local school. Rodrigo says that the focus tends to be more on cultivating respect and love between partners, rather than having open conversations about sex. 

The relatively late introduction of a government-backed sexuality education curriculum in 1999 (about a decade after Hong Kong’s) also impacts teaching methods, as many schools are playing catch up when it comes to meeting the needs of youth in modern society.

Key Takeaways

– Macao introduced its sexuality education curriculum in 1999

– Roughly half of Macao’s schools have religious affiliations, which emphasise abstinence

– Students say discussions about sex and relationships are rare

– In a 2019 survey on sex and reproductive issues, students answered an average of 50 per cent of questions correctly

– Discussions on LGBT+ issues and gender diversity are still absent from lessons

Design your own curriculum

Conceived by the Education and Youth Affairs Bureau of Macao, the curriculum covers lessons for kindergarten through secondary school. In 2011 and 2012, the Education Bureau of Macao, alongside experts from Taiwan, updated its curriculum, publishing its Sex Education Supplementary Teaching Materials – new lessons that address topics such as physiological health, relationships, privacy, bodily integrity, and respect for gender and sexual diversity.

The materials are available to all schools in Macao at no cost. As of 2018, 85 per cent of Macao’s 77 local schools referred to some or all of the bureau’s materials.

Though the curriculum is intended to be secular, religiously affiliated schools have had notable influence: Among the seven schools consulted by the Education Bureau, four had Christian backgrounds. This input can be seen in chapters such as “The Ideal Kingdom of True Love”, which encourages students to “wait for true love, and refuse premarital sex.” 

Though the supplementary materials exist, it does not necessarily mean religiously affiliated schools will teach these lessons. Schools have the freedom to design their own curriculums – they can adapt, cut or add materials based on their values.

Furthermore, schools often local NGOs to manage sexuality education lessons. Many participating associations – such as Caritas Macau, Macao Catholic Family Advisory Council, and Gabinete Coordenador dos Serviços Sociais, Sheng Kung Hui, Macau – have religious affiliations.

The Macao Society of Sexuality Education (MSSE) is one of the few secular NGOs promoting and teaching sex education in the city. Established in 2013, the NGO hosts workshops and talks in partnership with several local schools and associations. But when working with religiously affiliated schools, General Director Fiona Chan says MSSE must take a tailor-made approach.

“When it comes to sensitive topics such as sexual activity, we need to have a discussion with the school first to understand what they can or cannot accept,” says Chan.“From there, we will adjust our teaching content accordingly. We understand that it’s their stance, and we respect that.”

Coming of Age

Comprehensive, progressive sexuality education – covering the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality – is an essential part of a child’s preparation for the world, enabling them to protect their health, make informed decisions, advance gender equality and navigate one of the most confusing, challenging times in life.

For Vivek Nair, the director of School of the Nations (SON), an international school in Macao, educational institutions have a responsibility to evolve alongside society. SON tackles the issue by providing a safe environment for students to ask questions – not just about sex but also about relationships in general.

In one of the school’s Language and Literature classes, for example, teachers use Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a dystopian science fiction novel published in 2005 that explores themes about relationships and the question of identity as a vehicle to discuss sexuality.

“I don’t believe it’s our position to moralise or tell people, ‘You must do this,’” Nair says. “But we want to provide them with the tools, skills, and moral understanding that they need to make their own informed decisions later on in life.”   

 “Students rarely have the chance to discuss and share their own views and experiences on these topics.”

Many students from religiously affiliated schools in Macao say they rarely, if ever, had a chance to have meaningful conversations. “Our school will tell you about sexual intercourse, sexual harassment, and other topics related to sex education, but only on surface level,” says Ada*, who graduated two years ago from all-girls secondary school Sacred Heart Canossian College. “Students rarely have the chance to discuss and share their own views and experiences on these topics.”

This felt particularly limiting in an all-girls school like hers. “Since we don’t have as many opportunities to interact with the opposite sex as the students in co-ed schools, I noticed that some of my classmates didn’t feel at ease when interacting with boys. We can’t learn how to interact with others based on theory.”

In its content for secondary schools, the government’s Sex Education Supplementary Teaching Materials cover affection and attraction with videos that unpack the stages of relationships, from making friends and dating to a stable relationship, marriage and physical intimacy – in that order. The chapters also encourage discussions and role-playing activities in classes, such as inviting someone out on a date or a casual get-together. However, the local students Ariana spoke with don’t recall any such activities being carried out in school.

Enya, the student from PHC, believes that sex is a precious gift that should be saved for marriage. However, she thinks that schools in Macao that focus heavily on abstinence are missing an opportunity to help students better understand their sexual needs, desires, and fears.  “I’ve watched documentaries about sex ed and found that schools in the West are often very straightforward when it comes to discussing affection and attraction between two people during puberty,” says Enya.

Gary*, a fellow student at PHC, made similar observations. “We might discuss affection between boys and girls among our friends or learn [about sex] from the movies or internet, but we are seldom given opportunities to raise questions or share our thoughts openly at school.” Gary says he has felt confused about his feelings for the opposite sex in the past and believes more open conversations in school could help students understand physical and emotional challenges.

Elephant in the room

A lack of discourse about sex in schools hasn’t kept Macao’s teenagers from engaging in sex. In 2012, a survey conducted by Macau New Chinese Youth Association found that local students had intercourse for the first time at 15.9 years old on average. However, a small study published in 2017 by the Sheng Kung Hui North District Youth Service Team revealed the average age has since dropped to 14.3, based on interviews with roughly 207 teenagers aged 12 to 18.

A 2012 survey found students had intercourse for the first time at 15.9 years old on average.

This is barely older than the age of consent in Macao, which is 14 for both girls and boys, and two years younger than the legal age to marry, which is 16. By comparison, the average age in the US is around 17 for both men and women, according to a 2015 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Mak Chi Kuan, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Macau, says that the absence of open discussion can lead to other problems, such as misinformation found online. “Children [and teens] today know how to search for information without parental guidance, which can lead to early exploration [of sexual content] due to hormonal changes and puberty.”

Statistics support her concerns: In a 2015 survey conducted by the General Association of Chinese Students of Macao (AECM), 45 per cent of 1,000 local students surveyed said they had seen pornographic information online within the past two years, while 13.9 per cent said that they came across it almost daily.

Furthermore, a 2019 survey of 1,106 students by AECM required participants to answer a set of questions about pregnancy, abortion, and other sex-related topics. Respondents answered just 50 per cent of the questions correctly on average.

“Gender does not have only two ends.”

Changing with the times

Anecdotal evidence suggests that homosexuality is gradually becoming more accepted in Macao society, especially among the younger generation. However, in 2019, LGBT+ rights group Rainbow of Macau conducted a survey of 1,000 people from the local LGBT+ community where 53 per cent of participants believe that the effort made by local educational institutions to remove the stigma of homosexuality is “seriously inadequate” and about 25 per cent said it’s “inadequate.”

To its credit, the Education Bureau’s Sex Education Supplementary Teaching Materials includes a chapter called “Respecting Diversity,” which aims to encourage the acceptance of sexuality diversity with language such as, “homosexual people are individuals that deserve respect in their daily life and love life.”

The chapter continues: “In the past, humans thought that boys must be in a blue box, and girls must be in a red box. They thought that the world had only two colours, blue and red, but in fact, gender does not have only two ends.”

However, many religious schools choose not to teach this chapter. Sister Cheung from PHC says she feels unprepared to discuss the topic with students, because “there are a lot of biological reasons behind [homosexuality] that we are uncertain of.” From a Catholic perspective she does not “think [homosexuality] is correct.” Recent graduate Ada confirmed that sexual orientation was never formally discussed during her time at Sacred Heart Canossian College. 

 A lack of discourse about sex in schools hasn’t kept Macao’s teenagers from engaging in sex.

SON also does not proactively provide classes on sexual diversity. However, Victoria Arjomand, the middle school’s administrator, says these types of discussions are welcome.

Keeley Chan, an education officer at Family Planning Association of Hong Kong (FPAHK) which has been providing training and support for sexuality education in Macao since 2014, says the city’s delay in introducing the curriculum might be part of the reason that many schools have yet to incorporate this topic. 

“[The lack of content on sexual diversity] may not be 100 per cent about religious influence,” says Chan. “As the teaching of sex education in Macao is in its early stages, there are still a lot of topics to explore. The schools will likely choose the topics that are more basic, such as teaching students to protect themselves from sexual abuse or simply, awareness of sexual abuse.”

With the support of the Education Bureau, Chan says she has observed interest in providing more progressive, up-to-date sex education amongst teachers, social workers and counsellors who receive FPAHK’s training. “Every trial class we conduct in Macao is attended by a lot of teachers who have meetings afterwards to discuss what they have learned,” she says. “I can see that a seed has been planted in Macao.”

*Names changed at the request of subjects.